The first one I read, A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez, is a fairly straightforward work of non-fiction that moved me to tears twice in the first chapter when I test-drove it at home, so it was a clear choice for my suitcase. I'd read little Alvarez in the past--her first novel and one collection of poetry out of her nineteen published works--and this one is by far my favorite.
Her family was exiled decades ago from the Dominican Republic during the terrors of Trujillo, but in recent years Alvarez and her husband bought a coffee plantation in her homeland as a means of creating sustainable agriculture and jobs in a rural area where it was much needed and could be an example to other enterprises. One day while visiting the plantation, they encounter an underage boy from Haiti named Piti and over the years they become close, prompting Alvarez to promise that she would attend his wedding when the day comes.
Fast forward to 2009, when, back in Vermont, Alvarez gets the urgent call from Piti, simultaneously reminding her of her promise and informing her that he's getting married. In two weeks. In Haiti. At the same time she is scheduled to appear at a literary conference. But as she goes on to say, "Sometimes a conscience is an inconvenient thing to have, and costly. But not to follow it exacts an even greater cost, having to live with the hobbled person you become when you ignore it." Thus, between Piti and their own resources, they contrive to figure out a way to make it happen, including finding an escort who can take them up-country where the wedding will take place.
Despite having grown up in the DR, Alvarez had never crossed the border into Haiti and despite everything she had read about, she and her husband were utterly unprepared for it: the stripped & barren land, the abject poverty, the undercurrent of menace, the feeling of impossibility that anything other than a large-scale international intervention could make a difference (and this was all before the earthquake that further devastated the poorest nation in the western hemisphere). "Truly one of those environmental and social-justice conundrums; what should come first: the eradication of poverty or the forestation of the land that might allow for agriculture so that hunger can be eradicated?"
And yet...and yet...Alvarez is able to see, appreciate, and even convey to the reader the unexpected beauty hidden that somehow isn't tampered down amidst the pockets of despair. The incredible sense of hospitality, the joy and pride the entire community feels for Piti. The rewards of patience. The "investment plan" of sharing what you have now, with the knowledge that the community will take care of you in your own time of need. They successfully cross back into the DR, but only after some hair-raising encounters and bribes for Piti's new-but-undocumented wife and baby to get pack the various checkpoints.
After the earthquake hits, though, Alvarez and her husband are compelled to do the journey again, and this is what makes them an extraordinary couple, putting themselves on the line for coworkers who have become like family. For it is in returning that they learn the true meaning of family, loyalty, and the resilience of the human spirit. I can't recommend this book highly enough--it's a nice companion piece to something like Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, as it's much more emotionally involved book, and Alvarez is an astute and honest observer of the world she travels through.
NB: This memoir was published by Algonquin, one of my favorite small publishers, at the end of April this year and I received an ARC of it from my sales rep.